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  • Washington Highlights

    Senate HELP Committee Advances Lower Health Care Costs Act

    Allyson Perleoni, Director, Government Relations
    Len Marquez, Senior Director, Government Relations

    The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee June 26 convened a markup and passed the Lower Health Care Costs Act (S. 1895), a bipartisan package of bills that is focused on reducing health care costs, in a 20-3 vote [see Washington Highlights June 14, June 21].

    In a statement issued after the hearing, Darrell G. Kirch, MD, AAMC president and CEO, expressed disappointment that the Committee failed to address several provisions of concern to academic medicine, saying, “The AAMC appreciates and supports the Senate HELP Committee’s interest in protecting patients from surprise medical bills but is dismayed they have chosen to address this problem through rate setting. We are very concerned about potential unintended consequences, and that the current version of this bill could keep patients from accessing the high-quality, effective care that is available only at teaching hospitals.”

    In his opening statement, Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) praised the Committee’s bipartisan efforts on the package, emphasizing that the S. 1895 is “a bipartisan package of 54 proposals from 65 senators that will reduce what Americans pay out of their own pockets for health care.” He also urged the Committee to avoid “controversial amendments ... until we move to the floor.” Ranking Member Murray (D-Wash.) also praised the Committee’s bipartisan efforts, but stressed that “while this bill is valuable — it is absolutely not enough.”

    Throughout the markup, the Committee considered several amendments, including the CREATES Act (S. 340), which would prevent branded drug makers from

    withholding samples from potential competitors. The Committee also included the Tobacco-Free Youth Act (S. 1541) which would raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21 nationwide. 

    In one exchange, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) challenged a provision of the bill which would create a benchmark payment rate tied to an area’s median in-network rate as a way to resolve surprise medical bill disputes, stating that, “What has been adopted is entirely in the insurance companies' interest.” Sens. Romney (R-Utah) and Murkowski (R-Alaska) concurred with Cassidy, with Romney stating that “The unintended consequences in the benchmark process change the dynamic in the negotiating relationship between the insurance companies and the providers. It seems a very one-sided power grab by the insurance industry which could result in shortages as well as an unfair setting and higher costs ultimately.”

    Despite this opposition, Cassidy’s alternative approach of adopting an independent dispute resolution model was not considered. Prior to the markup, the AAMC and five other hospitals groups issued a joint statement in opposition to the legislation’s benchmark rate setting and restrictive contracting provisions.

    Alexander closed the markup by stating that he expects the package to be combined with bills from other committees and that it will be considered on the floor before August recess.